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I could not be present in the Chamber for Second Reading last week. However, perhaps I can make it clear that the Opposition do not oppose the Bill in principle. We see that there is an argument for extending the time after which a voter may vote in elections in the country, but we do not believe that 25 years is justified. We believe that a period of five years was unduly restrictive, especially as it is now clear that a number of people will leave this country perhaps to take up work in Europe or in other parts of the world but will still maintain a lively interest in the affairs of this country.
This Bill received its First Reading two days after the Conservatives had been humiliated in the European elections. My first reaction to the Bill was to think that the Government must be desperate if they were trying to rope in people who left the country up to 25 years ago. However, having considered the matter, especially in the light of my experience and that of some of my hon. Friends, it is clear that many overseas votes go to Labour as well as to other parties. The fears that were expressed initially that all overseas voters were somehow going to support the Government, are unjustified. Many people who have left this country to work abroad realise the damage that the Government are doing to this country. They are more than happy to vote for the Labour party to see this Government removed from office. I have no fears that by allowing an extension of the franchise in this way there will somehow be more votes for the Conservatives. I suspect that just as the mood is changing among voters resident in the United Kingdom, so those working and living abroad and reading reports of what is happening in this country will realise that it is time for a change and vote for the Labour party. In that spirit, I have moved amendment No. 4 which will allow a person to vote for up to 20 years after having been included on an electoral register. I believe that 20 years is a sensible compromise but that 25 years is going a little too far and catering for people who have well and truly left this country and are unlikely to return. If the Government are prepared to accept the amendment, our
Column 412opposition to this clause and the associated clauses can be somewhat curtailed. Perhaps we could deal with the other matters as and when we reach them.
During the Second Reading debate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department put forward persuasive arguments for extending the existing period of five years during which British citizens abroad may continue to vote in our elections. I would certainly not disagree with those arguments. In suggesting that 25 years is too long, however, I wish to make a particular point which was apparently missed by all who spoke on Second Reading and was missed today by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling).
In various democratic countries which do not have parliamentary systems, electors vote for a Government on a national basis. In Britain there is no national constituency in that sense. Our theory of representative democracy requires people to vote for a Member of Parliament in a constituency which happens to have on average about 65,000 electors. Within this country there is a degree of mobility which in certain areas such as inner London is very high indeed. There is a rapid turnover of electors from one register to the next. Most people who spend any length of time abroad retain links with this country, and if they take the trouble to register to vote we may assume that those links are reasonably close. However, we cannot assume that their links with a particular area will remain equally close. If, as is likely, they have relatives in this country, those relatives are likely to move several times in a period of 25 years and very probably into a different constituency. After a number of years, it is perhaps much more likely than not that if those overseas had to nominate where it would be most appropriate for them to vote, it would be somewhere quite different from the place where they lived or voted all those years before. After 25 years, their link with the place that they left could be extremely tenuous.
In the case of someone who, perhaps, lived somewhere only as a child before moving abroad and whose parents or guardians have moved a dozen times since, it would be nonsense to expect them to vote for candidates in a constituency that they may not have visited since and may not even remember. It is not practicable to give overseas electors a vote in a constituency other than the one in which they last registered or in which their parents or guardians were registered. I agree with the Government's decision to enfranchise those people as the only practical solution, but nobody would dream of enfranchising any other group by allowing them to vote where they happened to be resident on a certain day up to 25 years ago.
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : France, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the United States all have territorial representation. People can continue to register, although in many cases they left more than 25 years ago.
Column 413those that my hon. Friend mentioned. Just because they do things in a certain way does not mean that we should necessarily follow them. An offensive extension of our system of representative democracy, which relies on constituencies, becomes intrinsically more offensive the longer the period is. There can be no objective way of determining how long the period should be, but if 25 years is considered right to denote a continuing link with this country--I should be prepared to accept that--one might consider 15 years appropriate to denote a link with a certain constituency. For those reasons, I have opted for 15 years.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : In a spirit of generosity, I tabled an amendment specifying 10 years. On reflection, I was probably a little too generous. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful for that and will accept my amendment. Twenty-five years is excessive in the extreme. People who have been resident abroad, working abroad, earning money abroad and probably not paying taxes abroad are not likely to be interested in politics in this country. The Government's motive is to find a pool of voting fodder for the Tory party in the tax havens around the world.
No doubt the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) will shortly be sent to the Cayman Islands to search out a few Tory votes. No doubt the Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), will be off to Marbella to look around tax exiles there, and hold a few cocktail parties on behalf of the Tory party. Those cocktail parties would not be subject to the election expenses limit because it does not apply to advertising for voters overseas, any more than advertising in various newspapers such as Le Monde, The Christian Science Monitor, or the international version of El Pais, or on Sky television or any other satellite system would be subject to election expenses.
It is nonsense to enfranchise people who have lived abroad for 25 years. The Government should be concentrating on large numbers of people in this country who have been disfranchised because their landlords have chosen not to put them on the electoral register, because their local registration offices are so incompetent that they do not do their job efficiently, and because of insufficient canvassing and advertising about the need to register to vote. The proposal is that anyone who was born in this country can vote for as long as 25 years later. That means that a child who is born today, who gets a passport straight away and whose parents take him out of the country, will have a vote in British elections in 18 years' time and for a further seven years after that. That young person would have no conception of political life, or of what happens in this country. He would be given a vote, but he would not be expected to play any part in public or private life in this country. I believe that the clause is merely to enfranchise tax dodgers around the world. If there were any other motive behind the clause, the Government would be attempting to improve democracy in this country. The Government say that they are keen on promoting democracy. That is suspicious coming from a party that has introduced the poll tax, which has done more to discourage people from voting than anything else, and from a party that has done nothing to extend the franchise to those hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of
Column 414people across Europe who are legally resident in this country, are paying taxes in this country and are playing their part in community life, but who are denied the right to vote. They are denied, too, the right to vote in their own countries, because they are refugees or asylum seekers. We should be concentrating on improving democracy for people who live in this country and who contribute to this country rather than this curious--
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's concerns about improving democracy. Will he tell the House what contributions the Labour party proposes to make to improving democracy in Britain today?
As the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) knows, if he bothers to read Labour party documents or anything else, we are concerned about democracy in the community, at work and in elections. That is why we intend to abolish the poll tax. We also support industrial democracy. Of course, I would be straying and trying your patience, Mr. Walker, if I went in that direction. The hon. Gentleman could have tabled his own amendments to the Bill. I notice that the Social and Liberal Democrats--if that is still his party's name--has not tabled any amendments, so I fail to see why its members are taking a holier than thou attitude in this debate. [Interruption.] Under my skin, not at all. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has an awful lot of problems under his skin, but one of them has nothing to do with me. The problem is the lack of support for his party and perhaps he should address himself to that.
The Bill is not a method of improving democracy, but nothing more than a method of enfranchising people who play no part in the life of the country. They are not interested in democratic movements in this country, because they have set themselves up in some other country and earn their money there. My 10-year rule would allow those people who have working contracts abroad--for example, those in the diplomatic service--to maintain a link with this country. I believe that a period of 25 years is quite ridiculous and, therefore, I commend my amendment to the House.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : It is extraordinary to listen, on the one hand, to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) describing these people as tax dodgers and, on the other, to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling)--speaking from the Opposition Front Bench--saying that the Labour party is receiving increasing support from British citizens abroad. The hon. Member for Islington, North must in some way reconcile those two points of view. The abuse heaped on our citizens abroad is entirely unjustified. Many of them are Crown servants and local government employees who pay British tax deducted at source, and others are scarcely tax dodgers--otherwise, they would not live in countries where the tax rates are frequently higher than they are here.
We have listened to a number of suggestions for different periods, but they have, of course, all been plucked
Column 415from the air--just as much my right hon. Friend the Minister's proposal of 25 years as those we have heard of 10, 15 and 20 years. The truth is that large numbers of people work abroad and maintain links with the United Kingdom regardless of how long they have been out of the country. I was especially struck when I was last in the middle east by a British sales representative of a company in my constituency who had been working there for 30 years. He had continued to take his local papers every week in order to keep a watch on what was going on in his home town.
I am sure that many hon. Members have met people abroad who share that link with the home country. If there were to be any restriction, it would be more appropriate if it were related to those working overseas as opposed to those retired overseas, irrespective of the time limit. That is why I should prefer to see no limit.
When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to this short debate, I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that, if representations are made about any unsatisfactory features of the system, the legislation can be reconsidered to ensure that we are not unjustifiably disfranchising many of our fellow citizens. We are in an era, I hope, of increasing internationalism, and what is good for the majority of the countries in the EC and other democracies should surely be good enough for us. The internationalism of the Labour party, which lasted until 15 June, has been represented by the hon. Member for Islington, North, when he categorised all our citizens abroad as tax dodgers. Incidentally, that is an improvement on what he said about them only the other day. I hope that that sort of sentiment will not be expressed again, because it is monstrously unjustified.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : It has sometimes been observed that as people grow older so they become more reactionary in their political views. It may be fairly observed of the Labour party that as it has grown older so it has become more reactionary. The debate has illustrated the falling off that has taken place in the radicalism of the Labour party. In the debates which have taken place so far on the Bill, it has sought to restrict the franchise of British citizens, having spent the first 50 years of its life trying to extend it. The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) is an example of just such an attempt.
It is bizarre that, following the proposition that was introduced on Second Reading that there should be a property qualification or a tax connection with the United Kingdom--that was the argument of those on the Opposition Front Bench--it is now being argued that we should reduce the right of British citizens to vote in British general elections.
Mr. Darling : On what basis does the hon. Gentleman make his remarks? At present, the franchise includes only those who are away for five years, and the amendment would increase that to 20 years, which is five years less than the period which the Government are proposing. I never suggested any property qualification or the qualification that the individual should pay taxes. That is not the right
Column 416basis on which anyone should be franchised. The hon. Gentleman should listen to what I say rather than speak on the basis of what he wished I had said.
Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Gentleman began his speech by admitting that he had not been present on Second Reading. Had he been present, he would have heard the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) suggesting that there should be a tax nexus. He proposed that that should be the test to determine whether individuals were entitled to vote. The hon. Gentleman may not regard it as especially reactionary to seek to reduce the entitlement proposed by the Government from 25 years to 20 years, but I think most fair-minded people would regard that as a restriction of the franchise. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) was right when he said that to pluck figures out of the air is wholly arbitrary. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central produced not one argument of substance to suggest that he had it any more right than the Government. At least the Home Seceretary had the grace to say that he was attracted to the idea of extending the franchise to citizens regardless of where they lived. In so doing, he reflected what I believe to be the common perception, that communications in the modern world are such that information about the country to which one belongs and of which one is a citizen is readily available regardless of residence.
It is widely recognised also that the overwhelming majority of British citizens who lived abroad are not, as caricatured by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), layabouts, lacking in patriotism or sponging parasites of the societies in which they live. Instead, they are hard- working people who, in many cases, are serving the countries in which they live specifically and directly as civil servants or soldiers, or as members of the commercial world. The idea that these people should be deprived of their citizenship rights to vote because they are living abroad seems reactionary, and unworthy of a party which claims to be radical.
I hope that the Government have not cooked up a deal with the Labour party over this measure, but I suspect that that is just what has happened. Having put forward the idea of 25 years in the Bill, I suspect that the Government will accept some slight adjustment in order to convey to the British people the idea that there is consensus on this matter. Let me disabuse them of that idea : there is no consensus. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West has made it plain that the true principle should be that of giving the citizen the right to vote, regardless of residence, proved connection and demonstrated patriotism. How many people in this country would survive a test of patriotism if such a test had to be applied before they were granted the right to vote?
The Bill moves in the right direction, but not far enough. I wish that the Home Secretary had followed his first instincts, and conveyed the right to vote to all those who, by citizenship, enjoy British nationality.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : I am grateful for the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Walker. On Second Reading I tried to protest about remarks made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who castigated all expatriate workers as the equivalent of Ronnie Biggs. Unfortunately, on that occasion, I failed to make my point, but I shall do so this evening, not only by
Column 417welcoming the Government's measure--it is unusual for me to speak in favour of a Government measure--but also by speaking against the various different chances
Mr. Corbyn rose --
I should like to speak against the various different chances for reducing the number of years from 25 to 10 or even 15. It is important that the figure should be 25, and I shall give the House an example of somebody who would be absolutely disfranchised. For example, an expatriate worker may go to live abroad, but just because, for tax purposes, he opts to become a non -resident in this country--that is, he spends a year and a day abroad and thereafter spends less than 90 days in this country--he will not pay tax in this country but, even though a non-resident, he will not necessarily be exempt from tax elsewhere. If he went to live in the United States, he would pay tax there.
The argument of Labour Members seems to be one of double taxation. They seem to present all non-resident workers as tax dodgers, which is not the case.
Mr. Corbyn : In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, (Mr. Banks), who is, I understand, abroad--not, I hasten to add, in some tax haven--he said that the measure would enfranchise Ronnie Biggs, which is perfectly true. He also said that it would enfranchise a large number of tax dodgers, which is perfectly true. He did not say, and neither have I ever ever said, that every British person who lives abroad is either a crook or a tax dodger. I want to place that on record, so that what was and was not said is clear.
Mr. Allason : I am grateful to have that point clarified and I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West enjoys his stay abroad, wherever it may be, and does not have to pay any tax. However, while he is there he may well notice that, if the so-called tax haven is an island, the cost of living is substantially higher than that of this country, and even in a tax haven, he may be obliged to pay other sorts of taxes. In many countries where there is no income tax, for example, there is a very--
Mr. Allason : I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Walker. I speak in favour of the 25-year limit. It is a reasonable limit. Supposing an expatriate worker goes abroad and lives there. He may well retain a property in this country and come back here once every six months or so. He may let out the property. More importantly, even if he remains out of the country for 25 years, that does not mean that he will automatically become eligible to vote in his new country. Because children may retain their British nationality and their links with the United Kingdom and may be educated here, it is important that their parents have an opportunity to vote. They should not be disfranchised ; they should be able to take part in the democratic system and to vote for a Government when that moment comes.
Column 418Accordingly, 25 years is a sensible period. It will mean that the children of someone who has taken work abroad will still have the chance to choose, so I commend the 25-year limit to the House.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : No one would want to remove the right to vote of a person who has gone abroad on a contract, or who serves in the armed forces or in the EEC. However, many of us oppose extending the time limit for those who have been away from this country for a long time, many of whom exhibit no commitment to return. Five years is the maximum permitted under the present law, and a declaration has to be signed. In it, the person states that he will return to the United Kingdom at some stage. This Bill would abolish that.
I can see no justification for such an extension. As the Bill has been given a Second Reading, I shall support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), which provides for an extension to 10 years. As he said, perhaps, on reflection, he should have sought a smaller number of years, but I shall support his amendment as the best available option. I shall accept no lectures from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) about being an anti-democrat. I am all in favour of democracy. Had I been around at the time, I, unlike some Conservative Members, would have fought to extend the right to vote and for other democratic reforms. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I require no lectures on defending our democracy. Far from defending our democracy, the Government proposal devalues it because it gives the vote to people who have lived away from this country for years on end, who have no commitment to it and who have no intention of paying tax here. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, many of the children of parents who took them away and never returned will have the right to vote. I cannot see how that helps democracy. Unlike the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, I know full well why the Government are proposing this change : they believe that it will bring them votes. If they thought otherwise, they would not suggest it. It is naive of the Liberals, or Democrats, to believe that the Government have any objective other than garnering as many votes as possible. It surprises me that there should be any illusions about that.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is better than the one tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and it deserves support.
Mr. Corbyn : On a point of order, Mr. Walker. When we began the debate on this group of amendments, you announced the selection of amendments Nos. 1, 4 and 7 for debate, but they were mentioned in the order of amendments Nos. 4, 1 and 7. I should like some guidance, because the amendments refer to different numbers of years--20, 15 and 10 years. Will there be an opportunity to vote on all three of them, so that the Committee has a say about all three options, or will you be selecting one for a vote, so that we do not vote on the other two?
The Chairman : At the conclusion of the debate, I shall put the question that is before the Committee, which is that on amendment No. 4. If the Committee agree to that amendment, such a decision will relieve it of the necessity of voting on the other two amendments in the group.
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Mr. Corbyn : Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I understand what you say. However, the selection list has amendment No. 1 down first, with amendments Nos. 4 and 7 after it. After my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) moved amendment No. 4, you asked the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) to move amendment No. 1, and apologised to him for not calling him first.
The Chairman : Order. I called the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) not to move his amendment, but to speak to it. It may have been an inadvertence on my part, but I failed to see the hon. Gentleman rising at the outset of the debate, so I called the hon. Member whom I saw rising, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). For that reason, it will be amendment No. 4 that I shall have, I hope soon, the opportunity to put to the Committee. Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) rose --
In the light of the decision that the Committee takes, we shall decide whether it is necessary to vote on any other amendments in the group.
Mrs. Wise : Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. It is not at all clear why you failed to call the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), who tabled the first amendment in the group. Having apologised for failing to call him, you have implicitly admitted that the hon. Member was entitled to be called first. What is at stake is not simply the order of speeches but the right of the Committee to cast votes. Therefore, will you reconsider, as it was apparently an accident that you did not call amendment No. 4 first, and say that that should not be the determining factor as to whether we vote on amendment No. 4?
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Our debate is not about something of minor significance. On Second Reading, the Minister said that the Bill would enfranchise up to 2 million people. We cannot decently decide who should have the vote on the principle of who will get political advantage from that vote. That is what is behind the Government's proposals, and I was disap-pointed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) who said, perhaps in a jocular way, that it was all right to enfranchise people living overseas because they would vote Labour. We should be extending the franchise only to those who have a legitimate right to that franchise, and who form part of the society that should have a say in the decisions of, and operate checks and balances over, its political representatives. Therefore, those who are resident here, have close links with us or are returning here, rather than detaching themselves from it, have a right to vote in it.
Many people who live overseas may be worthy, although others will be tax dodgers, but that factor should not enter the argument. On the whole, people will increasingly associate themselves with the societies to which they have moved. They will read newspapers and watch television there and follow the careers of their
Column 420children, who will help to change their attitudes. They will become detached from our society, feeling a secondary rather than a direct sense of involvement with what is, to them, merely their country of origin. Many people here will, of course, adopt a similar attitude, but at least the social conditions which surround them will draw them increasingly into our society and justify their having the vote.
Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. Does he not agree, however, that a British citizen's retention of his citizenship is an indication of his desire to retain the link that allows him to receive the protection of the British Government and to carry a British passport? Is not that in itself a more objective test than any other of the connection of people living abroad with this country?
Mr. Barnes : Such people may wish to demonstate their link with this country. My argument, however, is that the way of life that they are leading abroad and the society that surrounds them will change their attitudes considerably, and that their connection with this country--their attachment to it--will become merely legalistic. In the past we have talked of extending the franchise to people who belong to our society--who are resident here, and who become increasingly involved in what happens here and what they wish to happen. Although the hon. Gentleman has a point, I think that it is countered by other factors.
Before I gave way to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), I was about to voice a considerable criticism of something that he has said. I take offence at the suggestion that some Opposition Members are not genuinely concerned about the legitimate extension of the franchise. I have presented a Bill to bring about the re-enfranchisement of the people, because I am especially concerned about the way in which the poll tax, because of the interconnection with the electoral register, will help to destroy the franchise.
I have argued strongly for the extension and nurture of the franchise in this country. For instance, we spend a tiny amount on encouraging electoral registration. Last year Abbey National spent more than £6 million encouraging people to vote in one of its ballots, while the nation spent only £320,000 encouraging them to take up their franchise rights. That contrasts with the amount--more than £3, 500,000--which could be spent for that purpose under the Bill.
Mr. Corbyn : Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the law of this country, everyone who is eligible to vote must be included on the electoral register? That is the responsibility of each householder, but hardly anyone--if anyone at all--is ever prosecuted for deliberately keeping people off the register. Should not the Government be attending to that problem?
Mr. Barnes : It is clear from what I have said that I support a move to include on the register as few overseas residents as possible--only those who have been in contact with this country recently. The initial five -year period established by the Representation of the People Act 1985 is, in my view, preferable to any of the current proposals. During consideration of the Bill in 1984, a seven-year
Column 421period was proposed, but there was a furore and a great debate--that Parliament concentrated on the issue much more closely than this one--and the Government made a concession, cutting it down to five years. They have now gaily advanced it to 25 years. I find 20 years better than 25, 15 better than 20, 10 better than 15, and five would be the best of all if we cannot return to what happened before 1984. Other consequences follow from a determination of the number of years that a child has to spend in this country to be enfranchised. That point will be dealt with later but it will be affected by the decision on this amendment. Someone who is now a babe in arms will be entitled to a vote at the age of 18, having lived all his life overseas and he will retain that right for seven years, although he may be voting in a constituency which did not exist when he was a babe in arms and he may know nothing about conditions in this country.
Mr. Allason : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that children who move abroad with their parents, or who were born abroad, may never have the right to vote in their parents' new country and may wish to retain their links with the United Kingdom? Their parents may return frequently to this country. If a limit of five or even 10 years were imposed, those children might be disfranchised.
Mr. Barnes : We cannot determine who should be enfranchised in this country by means of any global idea of what the franchise arrangements should be. A child may be living in a country where there is no franchise, so even if he became a naturalised citizen of that country he could never exercise his franchise rights. We used to have a parliamentary democracy with decent checks and balances. We have to decide who can rightly be enfranchised. If we get it right, we shall then be able to argue that the principles that we adopt ought to be adopted by other countries.
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : I apologise to the Committee for the fact that early on in the debate I was called out of the Chamber for five or 10 minutes. During that period I understand that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) referred to the Second Reading debate which touched on the amendments before the Committee. I understand that the hon. Gentleman repeated a point that he made during that debate--that I had said that Labour party policy is that people should have property before they are allowed to vote. That is completely contrary to our policy. During the Second Reading debate I said :
"Does the Minister consider that, for many of the tax exiles"-- the issue was tax exiles, in the context of the 25 years argument-- "who have given up Britain to live overseas--there should be no representation without taxation? If these tax exiles pay tax they should, by right, have a vote. Does not the Minister agree that this is a reasonable criterion for extending the representation of these people?"--[ Official Report, 29 June 1989 ; Vol. 155, c. 1146.] The reason for making the point in that debate was that in 1985 the Minister advocated the same point. I was making a debating point rather than suggesting in any way that Labour party policy is that people should not have the vote if they do not own property. That would be quite absurd.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : The basic proposition from which I start, and which I commend to the Committee, is that one should not deprive a British citizen of his vote unless there are very persuasive arguments to that effect. That must be especially true at a time when more and more people are working for longer and longer periods abroad in a multiplicity of jobs, many of them of direct benefit to this country. To say, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has said, that the Bill is designed to benefit tax dodgers, crooks, thieves and wastrels is to bring discredit only upon himself. I shall make two further points in support of the general proposition that I have advanced. First, while it may be true that the Bill would extend the franchise to a number of people who might be described as tax dodgers and perhaps thus unworthy, the fact that a number of unworthy people benefit from an extension of the franchise is not and can never be an argument against extending the franchise to the many more numerous people working abroad for wholly good reasons.
Secondly, the Bill proposes a self-regulating mechanism. It is no good criticising the Bill on the grounds that it will extend the franchise to people who have no interest in voting. If they have no interest in voting, they will not apply to register.
Mr. Corbyn : The Minister appears to be proposing a duality of standards, in that voter registration is compulsory for people living in Britain, but it will be optional to people living abroad who are offered the vote. Does the Minister agree that there is an inconsistency?
Mr. Hogg : No. The approach that Parliament has always taken is not to impose obligations which are unenforceable. As we cannot enforce against persons living abroad an obligation to register, we cannot impose one to that effect.
The House has to consider four possible time periods. The Bill provides for 25 years ; amendment No. 4, moved by the Opposition, provides for 20 years ; a further amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) provides for 15 years ; and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Islington, North provides for 10 years.
Judged against the general proposition which I have set out, the amendments proposing 10 and 15 years are too short. Neither 10 nor 15 years would be appropriate, bearing in mind that the general principle must be that British citizens have the vote unless there is some jolly good reason to the contrary. That leaves a choice between 20 and 25 years. I am perfectly willing to concede that, in a sense, we are plucking figures out of the air, and it is difficult to say that there is a distinction of principle between 20 and 25 years. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) has described his amendment No. 4, which proposes 20 years, as a sensible compromise. In electoral matters, there is much to be said for attracting as much support as possible around a particular proposal for change, and because of that I recommend to the Committee that amendment No. 4 be accepted.
Column 423enough for some of us. Will he explain why the declaration is to be abolished? Although I would remain opposed to the Bill, if the declaration were retained, at least there would be some commitment which a person now has to sign to vote in a British general election. Will the Minister consider that at some stage? It is important, at least theoretically, that in signing a declaration, a person should be placed under some obligation that he intends to return to Britain at some stage.
Mr. Hogg : The hon. Gentleman is attentive but forgetful. He will recall that I dealt with that point when I replied to the Second Reading debate. We may not agree, but the declaration is unverifiable. There is no way in which an independent person can judge whether a person making the declaration is telling the truth. Therefore, it is intrinsically valueless. Because the law does not favour incorporating into statute law valueless requirements, I certainly would not commend the hon. Gentleman's proposition to the Committee.
Mr. Winnick : The declaration was included by the Government. I recognise the shortcomings that the Minister just mentioned, but at least it places the person under an obligation of honesty. I have many reservations about the Bill, but bearing in mind that the declaration was included by the Government, what are the arguments for abolishing it?
Mr. Hogg : If the hon. Gentleman had thought a little more clearly about his intervention, he would be aware of the reason. He referred to the declaration about honesty, which in effect says that the person has no intention of living permanently outside the United Kingdom. Nobody can answer that question with certainty one way or the other, because he must admit the possibility that he might change his mind. That being so, he cannot assert the declaration with a clear conscience. Because of that, and because it is unverifiable, I do not commend it to the Committee.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) received echoed support from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). In effect, my hon. Friend was asking whether we should reconsider the figure. The truth is that the Government would be content to accept a period of 20 years, against the background that I have outlined. We do not propose to bring further proposals before the House in the future. Clearly, if there were general, substantial support to extend the franchise, we should have to reconsider the matter. At present, I commend amendment No. 4 to the Committee.
Mr. Maclennan : I predicted that there would be collusion between the Front Benches. As on so many other matters, they have joined in reaction and lack of principle. The Minister could not embellish the lack of principle of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who adduced no argument of substance, or indeed any argument, for advocating 20 years as the appropriate time. Even with his more inventive mind, the Minister could not produce an argument of substance.
Not only the Committee but the country will note that collusion and lack of principle and the rejection of the powerful arguments of Conservative Members. It will be
Column 424noted how the Government and the Opposition have been prepared to cut down the proposed right to extend the franchise to British citizens regardless of where they live and work. It is a sad commentary on the way in which Parliament operates.
Question put, That the amendment be made ;--
The Committee divided : Ayes 144, Noes 27.
Division No. 282] [11.07 pm
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Fishburn, John Dudley
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Lyell, Sir Nicholas
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Miller, Sir Hal
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Monro, Sir Hector
Morrison, Sir Charles
Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Porter, David (Waveney)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Quin, Ms Joyce
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Roe, Mrs Marion
Sackville, Hon Tom
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)